WASHINGTON — Washington. WHATEVER was in his mind, Mr. Bush's public words about Mikhail Gorbachev's Nobel Peace Prize were correct and gracious. Despite his sporting background, the president has not always been a good loser, but this time it must have been easier because he was not even in the contest.
The American most envious of the Soviet leader's award had to be a one-time contender who was frustrated by his own frailties, one Richard M. Nixon. Without ever saying so out loud, Mr. Nixon lusted for the peace prize as an honor one step beyond being president. It was a double distinction achieved by only two men -- Woodrow Wilson and Mr. Nixon's hero, Teddy Roosevelt. Besides, and even more pleasantly, it would have been a stick in the eye to his long list of domestic enemies.
Past peace prizes have gone to challengers of monolithic communism, such as Lech Walesa and Andrei Sakharov, but only once to anyone representing a communist government. The exception came in 1973.
That was the year when, if ever, Mr. Nixon might have been the winner. In 1972 he surprised the world, scrapping his old anti-communist demagoguery and suddenly appearing in Beijing, inviting China into the modern world. He worked out a nuclear-arms limitation deal with Leonid Brezhnev. Ordering the all-out bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong, he brought the North Vietnamese back to the negotiating table in Paris, where they promptly signed a phony armistice.
Unfortunately for Mr. Nixon, while things were going so well abroad his lifelong distrust of political opponents led to the Watergate break-in and his desperate efforts to cover it up. World consciousness of that scandal rose while the Nobel committee was considering its 1973 awards.
Instead of choosing Mr. Nixon, they opted for a pair of compromises. They gave it to his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger. But if Mr. Nixon got a vicarious thrill from that, it was dampened by their decision to split the honor between Mr. Kissinger and his Vietnamese negotiating counterpart, Le Duc Tho. Mr. Tho, who died this week, refused to accept his award. Mr. Kissinger was never so self-effacing.
Be assured that Mr. Nixon wouldn't have turned it down, either. There would have been a world uproar if he had gotten it in 1973, but there were real reasons why he was a contender -- reasons that make clear why Mr. Bush is not.
Mr. Nixon, like Mr. Gorbachev, took the initiative. Mr. Bush's contribution to peace has been to stand back and occasionally applaud while the Soviet leader takes colossal chances and changes history.
The president could do worse. History has taught us to be leery of men who set out to change it, to impose a new pattern on the future. Some turn out to be immortal heroes, some mankind's basest villains. Mr. Nixon, tutored by Mr. Kissinger, had a Realpolitik vision that sped the break-up of communism. Mr. Gorbachev was driven by desperation; his predecessors must have seen the Soviet emergency, too, but they did not have the guts to confront it.
What he has done is so sweeping that other Nobel prizes this year seem trivial beside it. The economic ideas for which three Americans were cited sound as if they were scratched out on the same cocktail napkin where an earlier genius doodled the supply-side theory that got this country into its fiscal mess.
Mr. Bush, leaving that to others, looks abroad where he, like Mr. Gorbachev, feels more comfortable. Since sending troops to the Persian Gulf, he has suggested for the post-Cold War world something grander than just muddling through. He speaks often of a ''new world order,'' without spelling out just what it means. Apparently part of it is former enemies joining to oppose international outlaws like Saddam Hussein.
The president may have a rough idea where his concept leads, but its name makes clear that he has no inkling of where it came from. While ''new world order'' has no familiar ring here, it has in Europe, where Hitler used the phrase to describe his plans for Nazi takeover of the continent.
Of course that was half a century ago, which makes it history. Mr. Nixon had a sense of that. So does Mr. Gorbachev, which is one reason he won the Nobel prize. Unless Mr. Bush changes speechwriters, he'll never be a contender.